Monday, December 12, 2005

Sorting and Serendipity

Since I passed my second qualifying exam last Thursday, I've been trying to organize myself better. So I've been making small changes to my living space -- say, moving my microwave from one part of the counter to the other -- but today I finally quit the easy stuff and tried to tackle all of my media: books, movies, CDs, and documents ranging from this months' bills to boxes filled with old tax information, foreign currency and love notes. Of course, I haven't made anything resembling the ghost of a hint of a dent -- but it's been an interesting day.

Some of my boxes have things I haven't looked at in years: wallet-sized photos I exchanged with my classmates in 1997, my college graduation tassels and (inexplicably) two dean's medals from the MSU College of Arts & Letters, an Irish ten-pound note featuring a portrait of James Joyce that disturbingly resembles my grandmother. I decided to keep the love note from my girlfriend (from before she became my girlfriend) and re-read one of the last love notes from an ex-girlfriend (just after she became my ex) before deciding to throw it away. Not many regrets there.

I found two old ID cards -- one, my Michigan State ID, is from July 1997. The other, an International Student ID card, is from 1999. The technology of ID cards has progressed remarkably in the last decade. My original driver's license (1995) was basically a tiny laminated photo glued to a piece of paper with a watermark on it. I once watched my cousin open one up and slide a new photo inside -- the easiest way to make a fake ID. (The ISID was made basically the same way.) My MSU ID was the first generation of computer-generated cards and (if I remember correctly) was the last year when they were printed in black-and-white. All of my student and state IDs since have been beautiful, full-color, and nigh tamper-proof.

The coup de grace, though, has been the box of computer hardware I've kept tucked away for about two and a half years. Most of it -- an old 128 kb memory strip, a modem, plus some other junk -- I threw away, but I paused when I unwrapped what turned out to be my old hard drive.

The original hard drive that shipped with my computer -- still going strong at four years old, after having made lots of modifications and swapped out most of the parts apart from the processor, motherboard, floppy drive, and case -- crashed in June 2003, at the end of my first year at Penn, taking with it most of my just-budding collection of music downloads and (more dramatically) almost all of the writing I'd done that year. It also kept me from using my computer for a couple of weeks while I tried, with utter futility, to fix the problem myself, with help from friends, and finally wasting 50 bucks to hire a North Philly company who didn't do anything but pick up the computer, verify that it failed at startup, and offer to format the hard drive for another $100. No thanks, I said. I can do that myself.

I didn't format the hard drive, though -- I just bought a new one (bigger and better), reinstalled Windows, ripped the handful of music files and docs I had backed up, and vowed to do things better this time. And I put my old hard drive away -- too sad to throw it away, but too angry that it had failed me to think about what else to do.

When I found it today, though, I nearly did throw it away. The music collection, which I'd always thought irreplaceable, I'd managed to replace, along with all of the programs, which were now in updated and re-updated versions. What stopped me -- apart from the fear of digging any deeper into the piles of boxes and papers I'd accumulated in the other room -- was the writing. Now, my first year at Penn was, at least personally, one of the worst years of my life -- someday, maybe I'll tell the entire story, but that's definitely for another post -- but it was probably my most productive year of school in my life. I was learning lots of new material and new ways of analyzing it and making new arguments, had probably the best set of teachers I'm ever going to have, and was doing very well by throwing myself completely into both the material and a certain kind of performance in the classroom: fluid, critical, knowledgable, with a kind of pedagogical intent -- I had figured out that the best way I could understand something was through trying to explain it. Which is the way I've tried to operate ever since.

I'd lost nearly all of the papers I wrote that year when my disk crashed, except for a few I'd saved to floppies, plus drafts that I would e-mail to myself so I could work on them on campus. At least one of these papers I had thought could make a good basis for a dissertation chapter -- when I finally gave up on my hard drive, I was inconsolable.

And it was in anger that I nearly threw away the drive again. I backed out of it by increments. First I agreed (with myself) that I would at least save the quick-release clips attached to the side of the hard-drive. When you buy a new drive, sometimes these come with it, and sometimes they don't -- it's always handy to have extras. (Don't ask me how this reasoning jibes with the only-what's-necessary heuristic I was using to get rid of my other old stuff.)

Then I remembered -- I had never tried using the drive after I had re-installed Windows on my new hard drive to see if I could salvage any files from it. The computer guy I'd hired had told me that he'd done it -- but he had been entirely full of shit from the beginning.

I hooked up the old hard drive to the power source and to my new disk array. I was such a novice then -- I didn't even want to open up the case -- and I was surprised at what an old hand I was at it now. Now I've installed a hard drive, extra memory, two DVD-RW drives, an Ethernet card, and extra USB/Firewire card. Computer hardware is so much easier to get your hands into then anyone would have you believe. I wish my car were like my PC.

After a few false starts, I got it -- with the new hard drive booting Windows, not only did it recognize the hard drive, it was able to complete the scandisk utility it had always gotten stalled at before (on the rare occasion it had started up at all). As it turned out, the file sectors with Windows on it had been corrupt -- which kept it from booting, or at least booting properly -- but the drive itself was fine, and virtually all of my media was in good shape.

Here were the real finds -- my old term papers, guides I'd written for myself in preparation for the Theory exam, an old mix CD given by a friend that I'd thought was lost forever. Letters I'd written, never sent, and forgotten about. Everything else was worthless, but I could copy what I needed and format the rest. Clean, closed, and done -- finally.

My mother asked me recently what I wanted for Christmas -- that isn't on your Amazon wish list, she said. Besides books, music, or movies. I don't remember what I said, but I remember thinking -- besides books, music, or movies, I don't have anything else -- I don't do anything else. My memory, my actions, my thoughts, are made from boxes within boxes, lost files on forgotten disks with written arguments on books I'd read, or a song I'd heard and saved away for later. I don't want anything else, I've never wanted or needed anything else -- just to recover what I've lost among the things I wanted -- and to throw the rest away.

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